Writings on an (Un)ethical Life --- The Greatest Suffering for the Greatest Number

Jerome C. Arnett, Jr., MD, FCCP
Article Type: 
Summer 2002
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The foundation of any culture is its philosophy. Over the past few years, a new culture has appeared in America, which has been associated with increased suffering and death. Characterized as a "Culture of Death," its underlying philosophy is a subjective one and its ethics is a result of the 30-year-old faith-based social movement known as, bioethics.(1) Instead of enhancing our happiness and prolonging our lives, the expected outcome of a proper code of ethics, bioethics has led to increased suffering and death by way of several gimmicks including the "quality of life ethic," "futile care theory," the "duty-to-die" ethic, death by dehydration, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Bioethics has been promoted by a cadre of gurus that has been labeled the "Priesthood of Death." These gurus include authors of popular medical ethics textbooks, as Edmund D. Pellegrino, David C. Thomasma, Tom L. Beauchamp, James F. Childress, H. Tristram Englehardt, Jr., and Albert R. Jonsen.

Also a member of this "Priesthood of Death" is Utilitarian philosopher and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer. Singer, who inspired the animal rights movement of the 1970s, also promoted the "ethical" killing of human infants up to 90 days of age. He has been described by some as the most influential philosopher now living. His book, Writings on an Ethical Life, a collection of essays from his 30-year career, provides firsthand evidence of the results, which are inevitable when one rejects the use of reason.(2) The book includes chapters on moral experts, animal liberation, environmental values, the Singer solution to world poverty, what's wrong with killing, taking life, justifying infanticide, and justifying voluntary euthanasia.

Utilitarianism is a form of collectivism developed by Scottish philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) which holds that an action is moral if its result is to maximize pleasure among humans. An individual's duty is to provide "the great-est happiness for the greatest number."(3) Society is the standard of value and an elite endowed with special mystic insight are to rule over the rest of us.

With Singer's Utilitarian philosophy, outcome is all-important and the ends justifies the means.(4) But equality of outcome is an absurd fantasy which invariably leads to disaster. Singer even proposes reducing suffering by killing. Death is a benefit for the one killed. "...Being killed does not make us worse off ..."(5)

Singer rejects the traditional ethic of Western Civilization, which champions the life of the individual. He claims that it is crumbling because of advances in science and in medical technology and because of a decline in religious authority.(6) This, as with many of his other claims, is not true because a proper code of ethics does not change over time. It never changes if it accurately reflects two important factors --- the real world (reality) and human nature --- neither of which has changed over the past 2500 years nor is likely to change over the next 2500 years.

To replace this old ethic, which is designed to protect the life of the individual patient, Singer proposes a population-based ethic which supposedly works for the greater good of society and relies on the use of altruism. He states, "...my own interests cannot...count more than the interests of anyone else."(7)

In order to present irrational, indefensible ideas as rational, Singer, like all of his fellow bioethicists, uses several, gimmicks. He blurs the distinction between animals and humans by ignoring the importance of man's faculty of reason. He states, "We are genuinely unsure what it is rational to do, because when the clash is so fundamental, reason seems to have no way of resolving it."(8) Furthermore, he adds, "...the ability to reason is a peculiar ability...it can take us to conclusions that we had no desire to reach."(9)

He changes the meaning of language and uses confusing terms and doublespeak. And it's no wonder the father of bioethics, Joseph Fletcher, in developing his "situational ethics," as early as 1972 found it necessary to change the meaning of the term "human." Singer, thus, proposes a new definition of "person" so that "...there could be a person who is not a member of our species. There could also be members of our species who are not persons."(10) Is that clear?

Singer merely is following bioethics tradition when he changes the definitions of "human" and "animal," and uses a new word, "speciesism." "Speciesism," a term coined in 1970 by Oxford psychologist Richard Ryder, was popularized by Singer in his 1976 book, Animal Liberation.(11 )He defines it as bias in favor of members of one's own species and compares it to racism.(12)

Singer's reliance on intuition, emotion, and fantasy instead of reason results in silly and irrational statements such as, "...where self-interest and ethics clash..."; "...when...honesty clashes with charity"; "depending on what method of moral reasoning I use"; "soundly chosen intuitive moral principles"; "the universal aspect of ethical judgments"(13); and "...the inherently universal nature of reasoning in societies..." His question, "What is the difference between a person who lives by ethical standards and one who doesn't?" is nonsense. There is no one who doesn't use ethical standards in order to live. The question is which standards do each of us use?

For Singer, a right is "something one can choose to exercise or not to exercise."(14) He claims that to have a right to life, an animal (or human) must be able to desire its own continued existence. For Jeremy Bentham this was the animal's capacity for suffering. (Bentham described natural rights as "nonsense.")(15)

When discussing environmental issues, Singer's inability to place moral values is evident. He applies ethics to species and ecosystems stating that trees, species and ecosystems have interests but he can't decide if they are "morally significant interests."(16) In addition, he blames the meat industry for environmental effects such as the loss of rain forest and for global warming, which he claims threatens the lives of billions of people.(17)

Finally, the Singer solution to world poverty would be a major disaster for us. It involves deliberately slowing down our own economy in order to relieve famine in foreign countries.(18 )But completely ignored is the increased illness and death which will occur because of the increased poverty induced by the forced economic slowdown. Also ignored is the greater damage experienced by poorer countries over richer ones, which happens with any economic slowdown.

What an appropriate, if not shocking, commentary on the depraved state to which our culture has descended. Here is a full professor with tenure at a major American university, the chairman of the ethics department, who has rejected the use of his faculty of reason during his entire career. And yet, he wants to overturn over two millennia of Western values in arguments that can only be categorized as sophistry. I can think of no greater indictment of our culture than this.

If your goal is to learn how to lead a long, happy, productive, and ethical life, don't trouble yourself reading this book. Instead, learn about the philosophy of happiness, Objectivism. Its metaphysics is based on reality, not on illusion or fantasy. Its epistemology is based on reason, not on skepticism or mysticism. Its ethics is based on rational self-interest, with its standard of value the life of the individual. Its ethics is not population-based, (which must use altruism to work for the greater good of society). Finally, its politics is based on capitalism, which champions free trade, not on socialism, which always requires the use of force.(19)

Don't spend your life as Peter Singer has, refusing to use your rational mind, promoting bioethics (biosuicide) with its Culture of Death, causing the "greatest suffering for the greatest number," and increasing the sum total of human misery and death. Then when you're ready to retire, you won't need to write a book documenting a lifetime of wasted effort.


1. Smith WJ. Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America. San Francisco, CA, Encounter Books, 2000.
2. Singer P. Writings on an Ethical Life. New York, NY, Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.
3. Binswanger H. (ed.) The Ayn Rand Lexicon. New York, NY, Penguin Books, 1986, p. 518.
4. Singer, op. cit., p. 53.
5. Ibid., p. 140.
6. Ibid., pp. 165-168.
7 Ibid., p. 16.
8. Ibid., p. 243.
9. Ibid., p. 264.
10. Ibid., pp. 127-128.
11. Ibid, p. 78.
12. Ibid., pp. 33, 43-44.
13. Ibid., pp. 4, 5, 139, 266.
14. Ibid., p. 232.
15. Ibid., pp. 34, 195.
16. Ibid., p. 101.
17. Ibid., pp. 70, 71.
18. Ibid., pp. 112, 116.
19. Binswanger, p. 343.

Dr. Jerome C. Arnett, Jr., is a member of the Editorial Board of the Medical Sentinel, a medical ethicist, and a practicing pulmonologist in Elkins, West Virginia.

Originally published in the Medical Sentinel 2002;7(2):58-59. Copyright©2002Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS)

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